Open textbooks are educational materials, written by experts and published under a Creative Commons license, which can be viewed online for free or downloaded in a variety of formats including eBooks and audio books. Martel said he adopted Flatworld textbooks out of empathy for the financial difficulties of his MIS students, who often must spend over $150 on a single book.
"Students are coming in to college without a dime to their name," said Martel. "It is like buying a car with no gas. You have a class, but you can't afford to get materials for the class."
By contrast, Flatworld's most expensive option, purchasing a soft-cover edition of a book, is only $30. Along with the radical savings, Creative Commons licenses allow professors to edit and customize textbooks to fit their courses. These benefits convinced Martel to recommend "Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology-Version 1.1," an open textbook by John Gallaugher, as a supplementary text in his System Analysis and Design and Strategic Use of Information courses.
"This seemed like the ideal solution because it is free and it is online, so it is everywhere students want it," said Martel. "Given our economy and our conditions, I think it is the perfect option for our students."
Since first adopting open textbooks winter quarter of 2010, Martel said he has begun working to expand their use in the College of Business. He is currently designing a new elective course called Enterprise Project Management, which will use a Flatworld textbook as required reading, and is working with other faculty to incorporate the less expensive books into the colleges infamous "cluster" courses.
Flatworld Knowledge was founded by Jeff Shelstad and Eric Frank in 1997. The pair left their jobs at Pearson Education, one of the largest college textbook publishers in the world, due to what Frank called extremely high customer dissatisfaction.
"None of our student customers were happy with us, and faculty weren't happy either - increasingly so every semester - and the writers of the books, who create the value in this business, were making less royalties," said Frank, who now serves as president of Flatworld. "When you have all of your primary customers as unsatisfied as these three, it seemed appropriate to start a new publication company with a more appropriate business model."
Frank, who graduated from University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1992, says there is no single party to blame for the meteoric rise of textbook prices since the early 2000s. The advent of the Internet put downward pressure on textbook prices, and expanded the resale and illegal copying of textbooks. He said publishers tried to preserve revenue by raising prices, confusing the market by giving unique ISBN numbers to editions with only slight differences and releasing new editions of textbooks - all rational, if ultimately bad, decisions according to Frank.
"The Internet is changing the game, but the publishers are an oligopoly and they don't have to change. We are a market-based solution," said Frank.
The momentum to adopt open textbooks, both locally and nationally, is growing. In a single year, Flatworld increased the number of professors using its textbooks from 0 to 1,300. Meanwhile, Martel is continuing to help other professors understand and adopt open textbooks.
"Times have definitely changed, and as faculty we have to be aware of that," said Martel.